Updated at 4:58 p.m. ET on 2017-10-16
The Filipino leader of the Islamic State (IS) branch in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, has been killed in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, where the army has been locked in a battle to dislodge the group since May, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Monday.
Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gang who allied himself with IS, was slain along with Omarkhayam Maute, another militant leader, in a predawn clash Monday, Lorenzana said.
“They are confirmed dead,” Lorenzana told reporters in Manila, adding that Hapilon’s demise could help “eradicate” the overall IS threat in the south.
“We have received a report from [military] ground commanders in Marawi that the operation conducted by government forces to retake the last remaining Daesh-Maute stronghold in the city has resulted in the death of the last terrorist leaders Hapilon and Omar and that their bodies have been recovered by our operating units,” he said, referring to IS by another name.
Lorenzana cautioned the public to brace for more attacks, especially in the nearby islands of Basilan and Sulu in the south where the IS has active terrorist cells.
“We are prepared. Our troops are prepared. We know this is the modus operandi of the enemy,” he said.
The news of Hapilon’s death comes after reports of heavy fighting in Marawi at the weekend, in which at least 20 soldiers, including a colonel, were wounded and at least 17 hostages were freed.
Hapilon and Maute were slain when army troops, led by elite units of the army’s Scout Rangers, pushed forward, Lorenzana said.
Hapilon’s death could signal the end of the Marawi crisis, but officials said other militant leaders in the south could take over from him.
More than 160 soldiers and policemen, 822 militants and 47 civilians have been killed since May 23 when militants launched their attacks in Marawi, officials said.
IS emir in Southeast Asia
Hapilon emerged as the overall leader of IS in Southeast Asia last year. He is one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf group responsible for atrocities in the south since the 1990s, including abductions and beheadings of foreign hostages.
Early this year, the group executed a 70-year-old German hostage after his government rejected demands from his captors to pay a ransom of $600,000. Last year, they also beheaded two Canadians who were seized from a beach resort in the south.
Little is known about the personal life of Hapilon, although information from Philippine intelligence indicated that the militant was born in 1966 and was once a commander of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a former Muslim rebel group that signed a peace deal with Manila in the mid-1990s.
Hapilon subsequently became one of the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf, the most violent of Muslim armed factions in the south that first vowed to fight for a separate homeland but later disintegrated into banditry.
Hapilon, considered the “emir” of IS in the region, was on the U.S. government’s list of most-wanted terrorists, and carried a $5-million reward for his role in abducting 20 hostages from a resort in the southern Philippines in 2001, including three Americans.
Two of the American hostages were later killed, one of whom was beheaded while the third was freed after a year in captivity in the jungles.
Lorenzana said troops were now focused in hunting down Malaysian militant Mahmud Ahmad, a university professor who is considered a “financier” of the southern Philippine militants.
The military had earlier described Mahmud as the one who financed the Marawi attack. He was described as once having trained at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s while studying at Islamabad Islamic University.
He said the government would announce an end to hostilities in Marawi after confirming that there are no more “terrorists-stragglers” in the city.
“There is still another personality that they are trying to get, Dr. Mahmud, the Malaysian. According to some reports he is still hiding in some of the buildings there and that’s what they are trying to do now,” Lorenzana said.
“The implication of this is that the Marawi incident is nearing its end, and we may announce the termination of hostilities in a couple of days,” he said.
'I am happy that they are dead'
A photo distributed to reporters by the Philippine military shows the bodies of Isnilon Hapilon (bottom) and Omarkhayam Maute, Oct. 16, 2017. [PHOTO/HO/AFP]
Zia Alonto Adiong, a spokesman for the provincial crisis management committee, said the death of Hapilon and Omar signaled the end of the five-month-old war.
“We are very happy. This is what we are waiting for. This is an indication that the war is over,” Adiong said.
Residents who were displaced by the fighting rejoiced over news of the deaths of the two leaders who were among the plotters of the siege.
Nairah Ampaso, 28, a mother to five children staying at an evacuation center inside the provincial capital said Allah had answered their prayers.
“We prayed that these leaders will be killed.” she said. “I am happy that they’re dead.”
“I hoped that their deaths means the end of the war and we can return to our home,” she added.
Nafisa Dimaro, 24, whose house was destroyed by airstrikes in Raya Madaya, one of the main battle zones, said she was certain Allah would not accept the militant leaders’ souls in heaven.
“It is good their souls cannot enter heaven. They caused so much destruction. My children suffered a lot,” she said.
Hapilon's death should also prompt the government of President Rodrigo Duterte to immediately lift martial law in the south "sooner rather than later" and the rehabilitation of Marawi completed the soonest possible time, said Rep. Gary Alejano, a former Marine captain.
"These are critical factors in restoring the normalcy in the area," he said. "We hope to bring back our Maranao brothers to their homes so that they can start a new life."
He said the government must act quickly to bring back normalcy to Marawi.
"Healing not division, good governance rather than war, livelihood rather than bullets and bombs, understanding rather than curses and threats," he said. "This is the time we need all the support from our allies rather than isolate ourselves."
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.
Updated to correct the date in the photo caption.